2016 Top Stories #1: SNAP fraud scandal at HSD

In April, five employees of the state agency that processes key federal benefits to the poor made explosive testimonies in court—that their bosses instructed them to doctor emergency food aid applications to hurt the very people they’re supposed to help. The following month, four more Human Services Department employees added their voices to the allegations. Then, three top state officials were called to the stand and pleaded the Fifth, refusing to answer nearly 100 total questions about their role in the scandal. Previously: Top ten stories of 2016: 10-6; #5: NM Dems buck national trend, retake House; #4: Demesia Padilla resigns; #3: AG clears final behavioral health providers; #2: State budget situation worsens

“In my opinion, we’re cheating those families,” Angela Dominguez, one of the HSD employees, said in her court testimony. The underlying question next became, why?

2016 Top Stories #3: AG clears final behavioral health providers

Years after the state cut off Medicaid funding to 15 behavioral health providers, citing “credible allegations of fraud,” the Attorney General cleared all providers of the alleged fraud. AG Hector Balderas made finishing the investigation into the providers a key goal when he entered office in 2015. Previously: Top ten stories of 2016: 10-6; #5: NM Dems buck national trend, retake House; #4: Demesia Padilla resigns

In April, Balderas announced the investigation was complete, with no evidence of fraud in the final two companies. Balderas previously cleared ten providers in February, and had already cleared two others in 2015. The allegations of fraud came from a 2013 audit for the state Human Services Department by Boston-based Public Consulting Group.

Another AZ behavioral health provider leaving the state

Another of the behavioral health providers brought in from Arizona to fill the gap made after the state Human Services Department cut off funding to 15 organizations is leaving the state. Valle del Sol is the fourth of five organizations from Arizona that were brought into the state in 2013 to take over behavioral health services to leave the state. The Santa Fe New Mexican reported that an executive with Valle del Sol said the company is working with HSD on the transition to aid patients. A spokesman for HSD said the same thing to the northern New Mexico paper. Valle del Sol had seven locations throughout the state.

State wants waiver on food benefits work requirements

The state wants to extend a waiver that allows the state to waive work requirements for federal food benefits. The Santa Fe New Mexican reported the news of the proposed waiver coming from the embattled state Human Services Department. The department previously sought to reimplement the work rules for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, but a federal judge blocked the request. Earlier this year, a federal judge slammed HSD for doing the work of creating new rules and procedures for the work requirements while not working toward compliance with a decades-old consent order. Last week, a federal judge named a Texas administrator as a “special master” to oversee the department’s food benefits functions.

Judge holds HSD secretary in contempt of court

A federal judge ordered New Mexico Human Services Department Secretary Brent Earnest held in contempt of court for failing to comply with orders in a long-running food aid case. The order from U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth Gonzales came down on Tuesday afternoon. The contempt order came in civil court. “It’s extremely rare for department officials to be held in contempt by federal court,” Sovereign Hager of the Center on Law and Poverty explained. “It’s a very bad and serious thing, especially for low income people who need these programs to live.

Federal judge recommends oversight for benefit programs

A federal judge proposed the appointment of a special master to oversee food and medical assistance programs in the state, the most clear indication of the severity of the problems in the programs’ administration by the state. The judges’ proposal is, in federal Magistrate Judge Carmen Garza’s words, “largely adopted from” the state Human Services Department’s remedy of a special master that will act as a monitor to bring the department into compliance with federal law. This is a breaking news story and has been update. It may be updated further. But the ruling makes clear that the special master will answer to the court and not HSD or the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which include the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.

Cabinet secretary testifies on alleged fraud allegations in his department

LAS CRUCES — The cabinet secretary of the state Human Services Department testified Wednesday that he didn’t know of allegations of widespread fraud in the processing of food benefits applications within his department until they first became public in April. Nine employees previously testified in federal court in April and May about HSD’s practice of adding fake assets to emergency applications for the federal Supplemental Nutrition  Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. “I would never tolerate that or direct that,” Earnest said. Related: After deadline, HSD report on alleged SNAP fraud still not finished

Earnest and his attorneys emphasized that HSD took immediate action end to put an end to the practice by sending a directive to employees reminding them to follow federal law and initiating an internal investigation of the matter. The remarks are Earnest’s first public comments about when he first found out about the alleged practices that have rocked his department for the past two months.

After deadline, HSD report on alleged SNAP fraud still not finished

LAS CRUCES — After being under court order to hand in an investigation of allegedly fraudulent food aid practices last week, the investigator of a state agency testified in federal court Wednesday he was “not there yet” in completing his report. But Gallegos also acknowledged to Center on Law and Poverty attorney Sovereign Hager that potential wrongdoing “may be more egregious” than anyone perceived. While the state Human Services Department submitted the internal report to court last week, the department’s inspector general, Adrian Gallegos, told the federal court that he still hadn’t interviewed at least ten upper-level staffers. Employees at HSD testified in court and told Gallegos that these 10 staffers played a key role in the sanctioning of regularly adding fake assets to applications for emergency Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. Related: Cabinet secretary testifies on alleged fraud allegations in his department

These emergency benefits are designed for those with extremely low incomes.

USDA investigating HSD’s alleged problems with food benefits applications

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is now investigating allegations of fraud in emergency food aid processing at the New Mexico Human Services Department. According to notes from a June 16 conference call in a federal lawsuit, HSD lawyers told a federal judge that “the USDA has officially opened an investigation of HSD and will be sending an investigator to Santa Fe.”

The court meeting came one day after all of New Mexico’s congressional delegation signed a letter asking for an investigation into allegations of a practice at HSD of adding fake assets to the applications of emergency Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program (SNAP) benefits. According to court testimony of nine HSD employees, the department instructed workers to add fake assets to deny applicants emergency benefits, which must be fulfilled within seven days instead of the 30 days of standard SNAP applications. Employees said HSD did this to clear a backlog of late emergency applications for SNAP, the program formerly known as food stamps. The allegations came in part of an ongoing lawsuit from the Center on Law and Poverty that faults HSD for not following federal law in its processing of SNAP and Medicaid applications.

Delegation, USDA want federal investigation into NM’s SNAP program

The New Mexico congressional delegation and a high-ranking USDA official want a federal investigation into the state’s handling of food benefit applications. The calls for an investigation from all five members of the delegation and the USDA Undersecretary of Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services comes after a federal court case included allegations of the department changing applications and adding assets so the applicant no longer qualified for emergency food aid benefits. Related: USDA investigating HSD’s alleged food benefits violations

Undersecretary Kevin Concannon cited these allegations against the state Human Services Department, which he referred to as the Department of Human Services, in his letter to the USDA Inspector General and Assistant Inspector General for Investigations. “We have become aware of significant irregularities found in NMDHS’s certification process, and are aware of allegations which, if demonstrated to be true, could represent fraudulent criminal activity on the part of State agency staff,” Concannon wrote. “Specifically, there are allegations of State employees falsifying certification records by adding assets to submitted [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] applications so that applicants don’t qualify for expedited service application processing to which they are entitled.”

The letter signed by all five members of the congressional delegation also mentioned the allegations and asked for an investigation.